Antonio Will you stay no longer? Nor will you not that I go with you?
Sebastian By your patience, no. My stars shine darkly over me; the malignancy of my fate might perhaps distemper yours. Therefore I shall crave of you your leave that I may bear my evils alone. It were a bad recompense for your love to lay any of them on you.
Antonio Let me yet know of you whither you are bound.
—Twelfth Night, William Shakespeare
Stay No Longer
They had scorched the night sky, the clouds as red as the blood swamping the streets.
The view of the ruined sky was obscured by a thick layer of black smoke, but few were interested in looking. The people were scattered in all directions, panicking, fleeing, trying to evade the pillars of flames, the swarms of insects, and the claws of creatures who had too long suppressed their craving for blood and death. An earsplitting cacophony of anguished wails, terrified screams, crackling flames, and frenzied laughter filled the air.
Hell on Earth. That’s what it was.
Most of them were monstrous, inhuman things with spikes and horns and features veiled by a form so unlike my own it was incomprehensible. Others, however, were beautiful, even by our standards, with faces so radiant it was hard not to stop to admire their splendor even with the backdrop of destruction. Those faces harbored something malevolent, though, an evil intent that harrowed my soul.
The weapons they wielded were equally beautiful and just as captivating. The bright red stone of which their blades were constructed gleamed, its incandescent glow at once calming and petrifying. Those they didn’t turn on us, though. They were meant for something greater.
The sky opened up, and an all encompassing brightness cut through the murk. They ascended then, and there was a deafening explosion as light and dark collided, obliterating all sense.
I tried to call out for my loved ones but choked on smoke and debris. I was on the verge of panic. I had to find them.
The tell-tale glow of one of their blades caught my eye, and I made for it, not sure what I’d do when I arrived at its wielder. Try to kill it? Demand an explanation? Beg for mercy? When I was close enough to see through the haze, though, I realized it was not one of them.
The boy holding the dagger was not quite a stranger to me. I knew him from somewhere I couldn’t quite recall. He looked more dazed than afraid, as if he couldn’t figure out how he’d come to be there. He looked around at the devastation then down at the dagger.
I did this.
He hadn’t spoken aloud, but the confession was as loud in my ears as if he’d screamed it.
Before I could process it, though, he looked up at me, and with a pained expression in his hazel eyes, drove the dagger into his chest until only the hilt protruded.
—Deposition #632, Nicolai Alkaev
Kaeden Parish was sitting on a swinging bench overlooking Lake Solace, the main attraction of his hometown’s only park. It was no Central Park—just as Solace, New Jersey was no New York City—but Kaeden didn’t mind. Solace was his town, and he knew it as he did his own face. Every block held some memory for him, and it didn’t matter if they weren’t glitzy or glamorous. They, too, were his. He couldn’t count how many times he’d stared out at the lake from this exact bench—at the ripples made by insects skimming the surface, at the glow of the fireflies flitting just above, at the reflection of the cloudy night sky distorted by the movement. And yet, as he looked, he was struck by how different though still the same it was.
The fact that it might be quite some time before he saw it again probably had something to do with that. It was hard to believe that in just three days his graduation would mark the end of his time here.
Smiling, he thought of how his mother had fussed over him that morning. He’d acted embarrassed as she hugged and kissed him and told him how proud she was, but only because he knew that’s what he was supposed to do. He had actually been pleased—pleased enough to ignore the retching gestures his younger sister Natalie had made behind their mother’s back. There was a time, he knew, during that awful downward spiral that none of them had been sure he’d make it to his graduation. He was certain that Natalie would be cheering just as loudly as his mother when he walked across the stage on Friday. He’d have to be sure not to trip the way he had at graduation practice, though. If he fell twice and refused to go to Sean’s End of the Year Rave, he’d be enduring Poindexter jokes from his friends well into his 40s. Ryan would be insufferable, but Kaeden’s cousin and best friend, Adrienne Ivers, might spare him since she wasn’t going to the party either and was still taking heat for singeing off her eyebrows during their final chemistry lab. All the same, falling was not something he wanted to do in front of Genesis.
At the thought of her, his heart gave a not-unpleasant squeeze, and it suddenly felt as if his ribcage were a size too small. This was not an unfamiliar sensation, though. It was just the embarrassing way he reacted when he thought of Genesis Garrison.
He pulled out his phone and was unsurprised to see that in addition to having not returned his text, she was 15 minutes late. He tried not to worry. Genesis was always late. It had baffled him when they’d first started seeing each other, but she always seemed so genuinely sorry that he couldn’t be mad. Now it was just something he’d come to expect from her. He planned for it. But then again, ever since Kaeden had gotten his life back on track his junior year, he planned for everything. He did wish she’d just let him pick her up, though, since she walked everywhere anyway. She’d declined when he offered, however, vaguely citing something to do with her family. She’d sounded decided, so he hadn’t argued much, but silently he wondered how her family could think he was more dangerous than the freaks that came out at night.
Or even the ones that come out during the day, he thought bitterly, mind suddenly back at the Bridgeview Cemetery grave he’d visited an hour before.
Before the familiar anger could overtake him, an equally familiar voice called to him, sweeping his emotions in an entirely different direction.
He turned and there, bathed in pale yellow lamp light, was Genesis. He smiled, the mere sight of her banishing the dark thoughts, and he knew, as he always did, that she was worth the wait.
Kaeden’s girlfriend was gorgeous. That wasn’t the only reason he was with her, of course, but he would be lying if he were to say he hadn’t noticed. Ray Charles would have noticed. She was a little taller than average—though still much shorter than Kaeden’s 6’1’’—with long, slender legs and a willowy frame. Her dark brown eyes were set just above high cheekbones in a pretty oval-shaped face that hinted at Asian origins despite her caramel-colored skin—though there did seem to be more evidence of her heritage in the strange pallor that contrasted with the rich color.
He gave himself a mental shake and forced himself to stop his instinctual sweep of her. He’d heard somewhere that after enough time had passed, beauty became less impressive, but he’d been waiting for that to happen with Genesis for more than a year and a half. At this point, he doubted it would happen at all. It might have been a nice change of pace, though. He wasn’t sure he liked the way Genesis made him react, how he couldn’t take his eyes off of her, how just thinking about her made him feel strange.
But he did like her. More than liked her.
She was standing less than a foot away now, so he took advantage of her sudden proximity, bringing her face to his with a finger under her chin and kissing her. It was a slow, soft sort of kiss, and it took a considerable amount of willpower to keep it that way. Kissing Genesis always left Kaeden feeling high, like he was in some altered state wherein he was capable of doing nothing but want her. However, though Genesis kissed him back, standing on her tiptoes, hands knotted in his shirt front, she seemed, like always, hesitant somehow, careful. She would immediately withdraw if either of them seemed in danger of exhausting their reserves of self-control.
That was usually Kaeden.
He pulled out of the kiss, albeit a little reluctantly, and leaned his forehead against hers. “You’re late,” he murmured by way of greeting.
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. Let me make it up to you?”
Smiling, he drew away from her and pretended to think it over. “Depends. What did you have in mind?”
She imitated his expression of mock consideration, but her voice was amused when she asked, “What do you want?”
He dismissed the first idea that came to his head, knowing that she would not agree and that it would likely ruin her mood, and settled on the second.
“Well since you asked...” He pull an envelope from his back pocket. “Here.”
“What is it?”
“The price for making me wait alone in the dark with the hobos of Solace City Park.”
Genesis rolled her eyes at that but took it anyway, carefully lifting the flap with long, slender fingers to reveal a ticket to Kaeden’s graduation.
Her expression was unreadable as she glanced from the ticket to Kaeden. “Kaeden,” she said carefully, all humor vanished, “I told you I wasn’t sure I’d be able to make it.”
“I know,” he said. “But this is me insisting that you do. I’d really like you to be there, Gen. This is sort of important to me.”
“Yeah, I kind of got that…” As she chewed on her bottom lip, something suddenly occurred to Kaeden.
“Unless it’s not that you can’t, but that you don’t want to?” His face had gone blank. “If that’s the case then that’s fine; you could’ve just told—”
“Of course that’s not it, Kaeden,” she said quickly, laying a reassuring hand on his neck. He put his own on top of hers, rubbing it gently in an attempt to warm the cool skin of it. They stood there like that for a long moment, and she seemed to drink in the sight of him as hungrily as he did her. Then, however, her expression changed to something darker as she dropped both her hand and her gaze.
“What is it?” Kaeden asked, alarmed by her shift in mood. He tried to catch her eye again, but she abruptly turned away from him.
“How much stock can we really put in the future, Kaeden?” she asked, voice barely above a whisper, as she stared off into the distance. “No matter how hard we work or how much we plan, do we really have any say in the future and how it unfolds?”
Kaeden looked at her, brow furrowed, and wondered at how she could at once be so close and yet so distant. He wished she’d turn around so he could see her face and maybe get a better idea of what she meant, but she seemed intent on watching the path of a firefly as it skimmed the surface of the pond. A fish suddenly bobbed to the surface to devour it. “I don’t understand what you’re trying to say,” he said finally.
She sighed audibly and turned to Kaeden who was surprised to see her smiling. He distrusted it immediately. Genesis didn’t smile often, and when she did, it was a small, hesitant thing that even she seemed surprised to find on her face. This, however, was a wide, beguiling smile that didn’t reach her eyes, a smile she only ever wore when she was trying to convince someone of something that wasn’t totally true.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “I guess…” She trailed off and the smile faded as she bit her lip, thinking. “I guess I’m just having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that after this summer, nothing’s going to be the same. You, me, the circumstances, it’s all going to change.”
Kaeden froze. That was it? She’d been worried about his graduating and leaving?
“Gen,” he began, “don’t think that me leaving has any bearing on you and me. Yeah, I’ll be gone and we won’t get to see each other as often, but that doesn’t mean this has to be the end. Not unless you want it to be.” Genesis shook her head, and Kaeden smiled, reaching out to brush a strand of hair out of her face, smiling at how right even this casual touch felt. “Good then. You’re not planning on breaking up with me, and I’m certainly not planning on breaking up with you, so there’s nothing to worry about, ok?”
Genesis nodded, but her expression still seemed profoundly sad.
“Hey, come on,” Kaeden said, not wanting to see her look so down. “If you’ll miss me that much, you can always come with me.” He grinned, and she responded with a soft sound in her throat that Kaeden recognized as a laugh.
“My family would love that,” she said. “Me abandoning the family to run off to Hoboken with my boyfriend. Classic.”
Kaeden laughed. “It’s not Hoboken, it’s New Brunswick. There’s a big difference. Besides, this was your last year of home-schooling before you’re done, right? It’s not like I’d be dragging you out of high school to go live in a shack to bear my children or something.” That got him a real laugh.
“I’m sure that’d make them feel better,” she said. “That I’d be running off with a future doctor makes it okay.”
Genesis gave him one more of those small smiles before all the mirth faded from her face. “You’re adorable, starshine,” she told him, “and it’s a tempting offer. It’s even fun to consider it, but we both know that’s all we could ever do. It’s not that simple, just picking up and leaving. I have people counting on me. Responsibilities. We can’t leave.” She sighed wistfully. “It’s nice to pretend, though.” The corners of her lips curved up, but there was so much sadness in the expression that it couldn’t be called a smile.
“There’s something I forgot to do, Kaeden; I have to go,” she suddenly blurted out, not pausing for breath. “I’ll see you later.”
Kaeden was startled, and it took him a moment to react when she turned and began running out of the park.
“Gen?” he called a beat too late. “Wait!” Her only response was to run faster.
“And then she just left?”
“Yeah. I swear, she can be so weird sometimes. Here, these are the Voltaire pieces we were expecting. We’re not supposed to break up collections so you can just—”
“—Put ‘em all in the French work-in-translation section? Yeah, I guessed that.”
Kaeden was in the back storeroom of Bosch’s Archive, the antique bookstore he’d been working at for years. It was a slow night—or, rather, slower than usual. Kaeden wondered on nights like this how the place managed to stay afloat when it was open nearly twenty-four hours and yet had so few customers. He didn’t mind the lack of traffic today, though. There was something calming about being surrounded by old books in the library-esque quiet, and today it allowed him a chance to try to puzzle out the inner workings of Genesis Garrison.
It was also a good environment for training the staff’s newest member—and most likely Kaeden’s replacement—Hagan Bosch. Hagan was a bit older than Kaeden and the grandson or nephew, or something like that, of the man who owned the store. He didn’t act as if this made him better than this job or his coworkers, though. He was cordial, efficient, genuinely interested in the books they sold, and learned the layout and workings of the place remarkably fast. On the whole, Kaeden thought he was a pretty decent guy.
Kaeden held out the box to Hagan, struggling a bit due to its weight, and Hagan peered inside, smiling in an almost paternal way that would have looked strange even if it weren’t being directed at books. The gentle expression seemed out of place on Hagan, who Kaeden secretly thought looked like a younger Hulk Hogan, only without the mustache and permanently sunburned-looking skin. He was by far the buffest bookworm Kaeden had ever met.
“Every essay, poem, and play Mr. Arouet ever wrote,” he said in an awed tone, a triumphant look in his eyes. “A nineteenth century copy of Candide anda collection of original letters. And all together too. What a treasure.”
“Yeah, tell me about it,” Kaeden grunted, shifting the box awkwardly as he tried not to drop it. “It’s a heavy treasure, too.”
Hagan laughed and took the box, effortlessly tucking it under one arm, much to Kaeden’s embarrassment. Hagan didn’t seem to think anything of it, though, saying only, “They must be weighted with authority.”
Kaeden laughed, shaking his head. That was such a nerd joke.
He turned from Hagan to survey what was left in the storeroom as the new hire disappeared into the main part of the store. The four unopened boxes stacked by the door suggested that there had been more than just the Voltaire shipment, but they hadn’t been expecting anything else. That probably meant it was more of those foreign books that arrived sporadically for the bookstore’s reserved section. He grabbed the box cutter Hagan had set on a shelf and proceeded to open each box.
The first was the small collection of books related to Faust that had been expected weeks ago, but the last three confirmed his suspicions. Each of these held between ten and twenty books, all in different languages, and inside each box on top of the books was a handwritten note reading “Reserved.” On the covers and spines, Kaeden recognized French and German and a couple of other western European languages, but then there were others that were obviously from the eastern part of Europe and Russia.
“Damn,” he muttered under his breath. Those were difficult to process and shelve as the reserved section was organized solely by title. He wondered if the owner knew how hard it was to alphabetize in languages that sometimes didn’t even share an alphabet. He had been provided a key for Romanian, Russian, Japanese, and Greek, but still. The entire section seemed unnecessary anyway. Kaeden had had a couple of people come in and look, but no one ever brought anything up to buy. Ever. He was of the mind that the owner was using the section as his own private library.
“Or maybe the guy just has a hard-on for old books,” he said to himself wryly, grabbing the Faust collection and heading for the German work-in-translation section. He’d get to the reserved books later. He just wasn’t in the mood right now. He heard a strange choking sound come from the front and cocked his head, listening. “Hey Hagan, you alright up there?”
There was a brief pause before he answered. “Yeah,” he said, sounding a little like he was laughing. “I was just thinking that you must find this girl pretty hot for you to be able to look past all the weirdness.”
Kaeden began shelving the books, agreeing silently. But that wasn’t all there was to it. Trying to understand Genesis was a bit like trying to solve an addictive puzzle without knowing what the image would be. The shapes all fit together, and after a while it was possible to get an idea of what some of the items were, but the puzzler was still mostly in the dark as to the nature of the big picture. Unlike trying to solve a difficult puzzle, however, trying to figure out Genesis didn’t get old. It was frustrating sometimes, but Kaeden never felt inclined to stop.
He finished shelving the books, folded the now empty cardboard box, and headed back to the front of the store to find Hagan thumbing through one of the original F. Scott Fitzgeralds.
“I was never able to decide,” he said, not looking up, “if Fitzgerald was a good writer who told terrible stories or a hack who could tell good ones.”
Kaeden shook his head. If he had one complaint about Hagan, it was that he’d rather read the merchandise than sell it. Then again, when he worked as fast and as well as he did, Kaeden supposed that was okay. He was almost glad he was leaving this job soon; if he’d been looking to keep working here, he was sure Hagan would eventually overtake him, and it wouldn’t be due to his connections.
“Ah, the mysteries of life,” Kaeden said in response to Hagan’s comment. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. I’m going to throw this away. In the meantime, why don’t you go familiarize yourself with the new reserved books? You can go ahead and alphabetize them, too, while you’re at it. You know, for practice.” He grinned at the look Hagan was giving him.
“Right,” he said. “For practice.”
Kaeden laughed and headed out the front door. The owner of this place, in addition to having a fetish for old books, seemed to lack a certain amount of foresight in Kaeden’s opinion. There was a door in the rear of the store that led to the large area out back where the dumpster was located. However, the place was so overflowing with books that it was necessary to put shelves wherever they could go, including in front of that door. The result was that anyone wanting to go from Bosch’s to the lot would have to either circle all the way around the store and its neighbors in a lengthy, somewhat convoluted route, or cut through one of the alleys that separated the buildings from each other.
“The man must have never walked through one of these at night before,” Kaeden muttered, cautiously picking his way through the narrow alley that ran between the bookstore and the adjacent building.
The alley was of the dark, narrow variety, the type that smelled funny and always seemed to show up on the evening news for less than pleasant reasons. This one, even though it was Eastside—the markedly better side of town—gave Kaeden the creeps. As he picked his way over the rubbish littering the ground, the familiar unrest he felt every time he ventured through returned. It was different this time, though. Normally, his nervousness was only slight, an uncomfortable fluttering in his stomach at the most. This time, though, he felt a full on chill racing up and down his spine. He sensed rather than heard movement around him, and his eyes, wide in the semi-darkness, instinctively flashed about the alley. He saw nothing out of the ordinary. Sweat beaded in the small of his back.
“Come on, Parish,” he admonished. “Get a hold of yourself.” You’ve been through this alley a million times and has anything ever jumped out at you? No, nothing had. He knew he had no reason to be as jumpy as he was, but even as he berated himself, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he didn’t need to be in such a deserted area just then. He sprinted the rest of the way.
Once out of the alley and in the comparatively well-lit back lot, the relief that washed over him was curbed slightly by the feeling of absolute stupidity. He shook his head, laughing at his own skittishness. He was letting Genesis get to him. She might be gorgeous and sweet and mysterious and in general the type of girl most guys would only ever fantasize about, but she also had a tendency to be a little morose, and he was letting her existentialist talk of being unable to trust in the future get to him.
The back lot served as the employee parking lot for the bookstore and the other shops that lined this strip. During the daytime, it was filled with dozens of employee vehicles and people going back and forth, but at this time of night—after ten—most of the places had closed. His and Hagan’s were the only cars in the lot, and they would be there until at least four.
I don’t know how people do it, Kaeden thought, making his way to the dumpster. The extra money he was getting for covering his sick coworker’s graveyard shift was welcome, but the prospect of being here for six more hours was already making him tired. He had a feeling Hagan would probably change his schedule as soon as he could get his hands on Kaeden’s hours. He gave a mental shrug, thinking that he couldn’t blame Hagan, and tossed the box into the dumpster. It made a loud hollow sound as it hit the bottom.
Kaeden froze then, all of his senses suddenly on alert. There had been another sound, something shuffling and covert that came a fraction of a second too late to be masked by that of the box.
He whirled around, scanning the lot for anything out of place, his heart rate suddenly up.
He felt stupid again, however, when his eyes fell on the source of the noise. Standing near the entrance to the alley Kaeden had come through was a man. He was maybe 24 or 25, wiry in build, tall, and blond. His clothes were a little worse for the wear, but that wasn’t why Kaeden’s lips turned up into a sneer as he took him in. The man was spasming a little, like his muscles were sporadically tightening and relaxing, and his lips were moving rapidly though no words came out. His eyes were twitching and his gaze focused and unfocused as it shifted jerkily around the area. He was standing stiffly, like he was either trying to hold himself back or hold himself up.
Goddamn junkies. “You’re not supposed to be back here,” Kaeden said, his tone uncharacteristically harsh as unpleasant memories tugged at his consciousness.
The man didn’t respond, but when his gaze lighted on Kaeden, it ceased shifting, suddenly sharp and focused. He inhaled deeply and grinned. There was nothing particularly sinister about the smile, but all the same, Kaeden felt ice run up his spine just as it had in the alley. Was he the one moving around back in the alley?
But no—the alley had been empty.
Kaeden shook his head. What did it matter if the man had been there or not? He looked like he was about to keel over; there was no reason to be afraid of him as long as Kaeden didn’t let his guard down.
But if that was indeed the case, then why, he wondered, was something deep inside him suddenly screaming at him to run far away as fast as he could?
“So you are him,” the man said. His words slurred somewhat, and his voice was vibrating a little, like a violin string that had been wound too tightly. There was also an anticipatory note to his voice that Kaeden subconsciously shied away from considering. “Mmm, you don’t seem dangerous to me. No, not at all. I bet you’re just like the others. Just as frail, just as blessedly alive, just as delicious…”
Kaeden’s eyebrows shot up, and he decided that the man must be on something stronger, something hallucinogenic like PCP. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said impatiently; anxiously. “And frankly, I don’t care. I am, however, calling the cops on you for trespassing if you don’t get lost right now. You’re in my way.”
The man just smiled and took a step forward. It was the only warning Kaeden got. He’d reached into his pocket for his phone, but before he could even pull it out, the man was on him.
“What the—” His sentence was lost in a scream when the man, as impossibly strong as he was fast, grabbed his wrist and twisted until Kaeden dropped the phone. He drew back his free arm and launched the strongest punch he could muster at the man’s face. Had it landed, it probably would have broken his jaw, but the man caught his fist with his other hand before it even got close and leered smugly at Kaeden. In the close quarters, Kaeden got another look at the man’s face, and his blood ran cold. Suddenly, his eyes had no irises and no pupils; only the whites and the blood vessels were visible. It wasn’t as if his eyes had rolled back in his head either, but as if the whites were all that were there. All that had ever been there.
With a strangled yell, Kaeden brought up his knee hard into the man’s crotch. He let out a screech and released Kaeden, who stumbled away. Druggie or not, sane or not, strong or not, Kaeden wasn’t about to fight anyone with eyes like that. He raced toward the alley, the quickest way to a more populated area, but the man recovered too quickly, and Kaeden only heard a wordless growl before he felt himself being grabbed from behind and flung away from the alley’s entrance.
For an instant, he wasn’t able to make sense of what was happening—how could he be airborne for so long?
And then he landed on Hagan’s car.
The sound of the shattering glass was awful but nothing like the pain. It shot through Kaeden like a bolt of electricity and then smoldered. His back had flown straight into the windshield, and the force had knocked his head backwards, slamming it into the roof of the car. He was vaguely aware of his back burning and could feel his t-shirt getting sticky with blood, but with the blinding pain emanating from the back of his head, he was well beyond his pain threshold and couldn’t really feel anything more than hazily. With each beat of his heart, though, his head seemed to explode a little more.
But he needed to move. The man was still here. How could he have been so strong? Hagan’s car had been yards away, hadn’t it? The memory wavered, and he couldn’t focus on it. No, he needed to focus. With some difficulty, he forced his fluttering eyes to stay open and saw the man moving toward him. The strange, hesitant posture Kaeden had noticed before was gone, replaced by a confident, casual stroll that warred with the twitchy scowl he wore on his face. Kaeden tried to move, but everything felt so heavy. Had he damaged his spinal cord? Had he hurt the part of his brain that dealt with movement? Which part was that again? He couldn’t remember. He couldn’t think. All he could even marginally focus on was the man walking toward him.
And then that became all too easy.
That can’t be right. Kaeden refused to believe he was seeing what he thought he was seeing. He was too practical to entertain the notion that he might be dreaming—he hurt too much to be dreaming—but maybe he was hallucinating? He had hit his head pretty hard. He blinked a few times, trying to banish the image, but it remained. Suddenly, against all logic and reason, a pair of leathery blue wings protruded from the man’s back. What the hell is this guy?!
Kaeden began hyperventilating and was alarmed when this brought up blood.
The man was now less than three feet from Kaeden, and up close, he saw that his forearms up to the elbows had changed too, now of the same blue leather as the wings, the nails black claws. He laid one mutated hand on the right side of Kaeden’s rapidly rising and falling chest, holding him down. Kaeden raised an arm to try to bat it away, but there was no strength behind it, no coordination to the movement, and the man just laughed and pressed down harder, digging his nails into Kaeden’s chest. Kaeden cried out in pain, but it came out a gurgling, choking sound as blood again found its way up his esophagus.
“Shh,” the man purred, his left hand poised just above Kaeden’s heart. “Just close your eyes and picture heaven. Then it won’t hurt as much.”
In the single instant following those words, Kaeden had a moment of clarity where everything except a single string of thought faded into the background: the man, thing, whatever it was—it was going to kill him. Kaeden wasn’t sure if it was about to rip out his heart or what, but that was unimportant at this point.
It was going to kill Kaeden, and at age 18, he was going to die.
Somehow, though he’d seen firsthand how easily life could be stolen away, he’d never considered that he might not get the chance to go to college on his scholarship, to become a doctor like he'd promised, to live his life the way he'd wanted. The possibility of dying young had just never occurred to him. For years, he’d been planning out his life, deciding what schools he’d go to, which hospitals he’d eventually apply at, and now all that was irrelevant—the big plans like becoming a doctor, the little ones like meeting up with Adrienne, Ryan, and the others the next night for a movie marathon. He was going to die, and all his plans would mean nothing.
He thought of the grave he’d visited earlier. The inscription on it stood out in his mind as if etched into his brain rather than onto the marble:
Emmanuel Delaney Parish
September 12, 1960 — December 9, 2003
A loving father and husband,
We shall crave of you your leave that we may bear our evils alone.
It were a bad recompense for your love to lay any of them on you.
Kaeden had only been twelve years old when they buried his father, and the epitaph his mother had chosen hadn’t really made sense then. Once he’d gotten older, though, he understood the sentiment she was going for but considered it to be a load of idealistic crap. It read to him as though they’d wanted his father to die.
He wondered now what his own grave stone would say and hoped it would be something less wordy and pretentious. We shall crave of you your leave that we may bear our evils alone.
But Kaeden didn’t want to leave.
It had been a while since he’d believed in the afterlife, and he’d long decided that there was nothing quite like a graveyard filled with thousands of bodies to undermine the prospect of there being anything after death other than rotting away in the ground. He realized now that he was wrong. Looking into the unbroken white of the man’s eyes with the edges of his own vision turning black, he had never been surer of the nonexistence of a god or an afterlife. This was just too unfair for him to be able to believe in something so optimistic. But what was it Genesis had said?
It’s nice to pretend.
Kaeden could do that. He could pretend that he’d been wrong all this time, could pretend that he was about to see his father again.
He couldn’t close his eyes, though. Afterlife or no, he wasn’t going to let the last thing he saw in this world be the underside of his eyelids.
As if it had been waiting for this decision, the moment was over, and time resumed its regular, too-fast pace. The man/thing drew back his arm—
And suddenly Hagan was there, dragging him away from Kaeden.
What the hell? Kaeden thought vaguely. Where had Hagan come from? As closely as he could, given the circumstances, he watched Hagan and the thing fight, thinking that he had to have seriously hurt his brain for his senses to be as sluggish as they were. He could barely keep up with their movements. Someone was hissing. Or maybe that was just in his head like the ringing in his ears.
He clinched his eyes shut for a moment, trying to get his bearings, but when he opened them again, it seemed over. The night was now still, and Hagan was leaning over him.
Where had the thing gone? Had he hit his head harder than he’d thought? Had the thing never been there at all? No, there was no way he’d just imagined it all. His bleeding chest was proof of that.
Hagan was saying something, but Kaeden couldn’t really make much sense of it. His voice seemed to float down to him from across a wide space.
“Damn,” Hagan said, sounding strained. “What’d you have to go and do this for?”
Kaeden tried to say something but only choked on blood again. Hagan stiffened, and even Kaeden could see the cords straining in his neck. What was wrong?
Hagan laughed nervously, and if Kaeden had been firing on all cylinders, the sound of it might have scared him. There was a hard edge to it. A dangerous edge. “Sure won’t be destroying anything like this, but I don’t want to have to…” His voice was trembling in a way uncomfortably similar to the man/thing from before.
“Plus, your little lady would be pissed with me if I let you die. Wouldn’t want to waste all this, either. Am I right?” He gave a tense half smile, and Kaeden was lost as to what was going on. Or maybe he was just lost. Hagan looked and sounded farther and farther away, and Kaeden was cold and hurting.
“Close your eyes,” he heard Hagan say. This time, he obliged. Why not? He was too tired to resist. Might never open them again but hey, what can you do? Not much, as tired as he was. He felt something like relief as he let his eyes close and his muscles relax. This wasn’t so bad, not as bad as it could be. At least his throat hadn’t been slit by a family member stealing his money. And the pain was going away, too.
As if to contradict him, a sharp pain erupted at his neck, and he gasped for breath, choking himself again. His eyes flew open, but only swimming colors greeted his sight, and those were rapidly fading to black. The pain renewed at regular intervals, stinging at the source and pounding through the rest of his body. It didn’t really hurt after a second, and he fell into the rhythm of it. It almost felt…nice. Nice except for being even colder now. And feeling heavier than before.
The stinging and pounding stopped, but Kaeden’s awareness didn’t improve. He felt like he was floating in a dark, viscous fog with no indication of where the fog ended and he began. He felt something press against him somewhere and could suddenly taste something salty and metallic. It wasn’t wholly unpleasant, but he wanted to gag and spit it out all the same; there was something unnatural about it, and his body rebelled against allowing whatever it was inside of him. He was being restrained though, making it impossible to expel the substance, so he swallowed instead. More poured into him then, and this time it tasted much better, sweet and vibrant somehow. He swallowed again. And again. And again.
And suddenly, his body was on fire.
The pain that gripped Kaeden now was unlike anything he’d ever felt before and something he would hope to never experience again. It was like white hot flames were shooting through his veins, and his head felt like it was splitting open. His eyes were still open, but he couldn’t see anything beyond the fireworks display filling his vision. He heard a loud piercing noise and realized belatedly that he was hearing his own screaming. He was rawing his throat, but he wouldn’t have been able to stop even if he’d been aware enough to try. He arched his back, writhing against the pain, but there was no escape. It filled him through to every corner, so intense that the glass digging into his back was like a pinprick in comparison. He heard something else, a humming noise, soft but near enough that he could hear it indistinctly, while another scream seemed to join his, shrill like the caw of a dying bird. None of that seemed very important, though. His body convulsed, and he felt something holding him down. He instinctively struggled against it, but his movements were jerky and ineffectual with the pain incapacitating him.
A moment later, though, the weight vanished as a light different from the colors spider-webbing his vision flashed. He thought he felt a wave of external heat and maybe heard something, but the thoughts faded into the background almost as soon as they had come.
He felt sick and rolled sideways, his body apparently aware that drowning in his own vomit would be bad. He must have reached the edge of the car because he hit the ground hard enough that the impact broke through the haze of pain. He felt himself heaving, but nothing was coming up. He clawed at the ground furiously, barely feeling gravel rip at the sensitive skin under his nails.
Had he just heard his name? Was someone calling him? He couldn’t be sure and couldn’t focus to listen for more. The call didn’t come again.
He wasn’t sure how long the pain lasted; it could have been anywhere from ten minutes to ten hours. Any stretch of time was far too long. However, after a while, the pain began to recede. It dwindled slowly—too slowly—but with each passing moment, it became more like normal pain and less like acid was eating away at him from the inside. In its wake, though, was left one of the most profound fatigues he’d ever experienced. When the pain was finally gone, he just lay there, oblivious to everything, floating somewhere between sleep and wake.
Kaeden jerked into a sitting position, totally disoriented as he wondered where he was and what was going on. He looked around, and flinched as that exacerbated his throbbing headache. His vision was sharp—sharper than it had ever been before—and his surroundings appeared nauseatingly close. The smell didn’t help. The alley was inexplicably rank with a stench like garbage, rain, rotten eggs, and burning flesh. He racked his brain for memories.
He was in the back lot of the bookstore and remembered coming out to throw something away. And then…the thing—no, the man; Kaeden had to have hallucinated the claws and wings—had come and thrown him against the car. His hand flew to the back of his head but though his hair was caked with something warm and sticky, he felt no wound. He looked down at himself, searching for the other wounds he remembered, but though his shirt was also covered with drying blood, his chest was free of injury.
But how’s that possible? And where’s Hagan? He did come out here, didn’t he?
He was on his feet before he even realized he’d moved, scanning the lot again with his dizzying vision. He decided all this had to be from adrenaline or something. Injured or not, he’d definitely been through enough to warrant that. His eyes came to rest on the back door of the bookstore, the one that had been blocked by the full bookshelf. It was open.
“Hagan?” Kaeden called, taking an uncertain step forward.
“You’re stepping in him,” an amused voice said from behind him.
Kaeden jumped in surprise and instinctively looked down. When he saw nothing but dirt, dust, and other typical debris, he snapped his head around to see who had spoken. Sitting cross-legged on the roof of Hagan’s ruined car, chin resting in the palm of his hand, was a man. He was normal-looking enough with his fine, golden blonde hair that fell past his shoulders, eyes the peculiar color of topaz, jeans, and a white long-sleeve t-shirt. Somehow though, the entire image of him seemed to waver, almost like a flame in wind. He was looking at Kaeden with an interested expression on his face, smiling slightly.
“What are you talking about?” Kaeden asked, shaking a little. “Who are you?” Too much was happening too fast. He had no idea what had just happened to him or to Hagan and now this guy had shown up out of nowhere. It was sensory overload.
“Your new best friend,” the man said grinning. “I’m here to help you.”
Kaeden’s first inclination was to tell the guy to get lost. He wasn’t, after all, in the habit of accepting help from strange men who offered it in abandoned back lots. All he wanted to do was to talk to Hagan, call the cops, and then…eat. He was suddenly unbelievably hungry. Or was he thirsty? Am I going into shock? It didn’t really matter. All of those thoughts died in his throat anyway, catching the way his blood had.
It was everywhere: caked onto his skin, plastering his shirt to his chest, painting the car and the ground. What happened? Why can’t I remember?
“H-help me how?” he asked. “What happened?”
The smile that spread across the man’s face was conspiratory, and when he leaned forward toward Kaeden, it was as if he meant to share a secret with him.
“You died,” he said slyly.
Kaeden recoiled, feeling something like disgust at how the night’s insanity seemed intent on invading his life and how, at least with this man, he had just invited it. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“On second thought,” he said through gritted teeth, “I don’t want your help. What I want is for you to leave. I’ve had my share of trespassing crazies for the night, and I really can’t deal with this right now.”
The man laughed. “Trespassing? Well, you’re not the only one to think so, but I daresay you are, too. Now at least. And without me, not only will you be unwanted in humanity’s territory; you’ll be lost in it.”
Kaeden shook his head as if trying to shake off the man’s nonsensical words. “Lost is what you need to be,” he said, his patience dangerously depleted. He turned, moving toward the back door of the store. “Why don’t you just go snort some cocaine or something?”
“You sound sure of yourself,” the man said in a patronizing tone. “But I know otherwise. I know you must be full of questions? Uncertainties? Worries that need soothing? I have the answers you seek. Don’t you want them?”
As the man spoke, his voice became soft and reassuring, making Kaeden pause, but just for a moment. Kaeden had trouble believing the man could tell him anything of use given that his first bit of insight had been that Kaeden was dead. “Not from you,” he said. The man was undeterred.
“I can tell you that the thing that attacked you is still around and isn’t alone. There are more of them, and they’re going to come after you.”
That made Kaeden stop. “What?” he heard himself say.
The man laughed, and Kaeden turned to look at him. The man was standing just inches away from his back. Kaeden stepped backward, startled.
“You’re surprised. And well you should be, I suppose. They’re not telling the new recruits anything these days.”
Kaeden scowled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he snapped. The man laughed, irking him even more. Does he ever stop laughing? What’s so damn funny about any of this?
“That’s just it. You know nothing about anything, and it’s going to get you killed again.”
“Touchy,” the man said, still grinning, and Kaeden couldn’t help but realize he was right. He needed to calm down, piece together what had happened, and then go to the police with it. He was a collected sort of person, and he knew that allowing his emotions to run away with him wouldn’t help anything.
“Look,” he said, forcing himself to calm down. “Thanks, but no thanks. I can handle this on my own.”
The man folded his arms and backed away to sit on the hood of Hagan’s car. “So you think,” he said, “but suit yourself. You’ll come back to me. I’ll be here.”
“I suggest you not be as the only ones coming back here will be the police,” Kaeden called behind him, now in the threshold of the back door. He closed the door on the man’s laughter, oddly relieved to be out of his presence but anxious all the same.
He leaned against the door, eyes closed, feeling agitated but tired. And yet, he didn’t feel bad. In fact, he actually felt great. Maybe it was the adrenaline, but beneath the weariness and restlessness, he felt like conquering the world. He felt strong, unbeatable. It was a baffling group of feelings that was made even more distracting by his worsening hunger, or thirst, or whatever it was. He groaned. At any rate, nothing would be resolved if he just stood there leaning against a door, expecting things to reveal themselves to him. He opened his eyes.
The bookshelf that had been in front of the door was now pushed out of the way. Kaeden walked cautiously over to it and gave it a small, one-handed shove. To his surprise, it moved easily. Huh… Maybe it wasn’t as heavy as he’d always thought. Hagan was a lot stronger than he was; if Kaeden could move the shelf, Hagan certainly could.
He walked back to the door and opened it, peering out into the back lot. He was again startled by the clarity of his vision despite the dark but tried to push that aside and focus on the matter at hand. The man was gone, but there was no sign of Hagan either. He closed the door again, feeling troubled.
He didn’t like the uncertainty plaguing him; it made him feel insecure about everything. Had he really seen Hagan outside before? Or had his shocked mind just made that up? He groaned aloud.
“This is so stupid!” His voice seemed to carry loudly in the deserted store, echoing eerily back at him. He shook his head in an attempt to clear it. What’s wrong with me? he thought irritably. One near death experience and he fell to pieces. He laughed at himself a little then; having been attacked and nearly killed, he supposed that if there was ever a time for hysterics, this was it. Still though, he never reacted to stress this way, and now was hardly the time to start.
He headed back to the storeroom where the file cabinet was located. Technically speaking, he didn’t have the authority to view employee files, but he was going to pretend he didn’t know that. He needed to get a hold of Hagan.
Hagan Bosch’s file was a joke, Kaeden decided. Where was the reference sheet? The copy of the driver’s license? The application? He shook his head in disgust. Maybe Hagan had been handed the job after all.
He ended up having to dig out the employee roster in order to find his contact information. After doing so, and then going to retrieve his cell phone—which was miraculously still intact—from outside, he dialed the number listed as Hagan’s cell.
On the third ring, the theme from Requiem for a Dream began playing from elsewhere in the shop. Kaeden followed the music to the front of the store to find on the counter, behind the register, atop the copy of The Great Gatsby, Hagan’s cell phone.
He swore and hung up, causing Hagan’s phone to chime the missed call alert. He guessed he had no choice but to call the police. He looked at the phone in his hand, hesitating.
What would he say to them? He couldn’t report Hagan as missing; they’d just tell him they have to wait 48 hours before doing anything. What then? Claim that he’d been attacked by some thing? Even if he left out what would be deemed an obvious embellishment or hallucination, how would he explain his complete lack of injury despite the quantity of gore on his body? They’d think he was trying to pull something. The most he could report without being immediately dismissed was a wrecked car and really, how would a hit and run report help anything? What would he even say?
He groaned, shoving his phone into his pocket. He just couldn’t focus enough to figure out what to do. Maybe after he’d showered, changed clothes, and eaten he’d have better luck, but not right then. He nodded to himself. That’s what he’d do. He’d go home and deal with everything after he’d had time to step away and clear his head. Then things would make sense again.
Kaeden’s decision to eat when he got home seemed to waver with each mile he drove. He was so famished that it actually hurt. He made up his mind after a particularly strong hunger pang caused him to nearly swerve off the road. It didn’t matter that he looked like an extra from Resident Evil; he was getting something to eat. He toyed briefly with the idea of pulling into a fast food place, but the notion only turned his already unsettled stomach. He continued past McDonald’s and Burger King without stopping.
A few minutes later he was in the parking lot of a nearby diner. He’d passed it often enough on the way home but had largely ignored it before now. It was one of those small, almost dumpy local joints, but it wasn’t fast food and the lights and sign declared it to be open which was all that mattered. He killed the engine, pulled off his ruined shirt, and donned a hoodie he’d thrown in the backseat earlier. On the front, it read “Solace High Track Team.” Kaeden frowned as he pulled on the hood. It smelled a little odd.
When he finally left his car to enter the diner, he discovered that he’d been too hard on the place. It was small, but the interior wasn’t as dingy or as grungy as he’d expected. In addition, due to the late hour, there weren’t many patrons, so he had the added bonus of being shown to a table almost immediately.
He was seated for only a moment before his waitress arrived. She was a pretty blonde girl named Evie who looked to be around twenty or so with blue eyes and a ready, genuine-seeming smile despite the hour. She asked what he’d like to drink, and he ordered water, hoping it would help the dry, burning sensation in his mouth and throat.
He sighed, putting his head in his hands and massaging his temples. Why wasn’t his headache going away? And why did the diner seem so bright? His vision still hadn’t returned to normal, and the sharpness of everything combined with the brightness of the light only made his head feel that much worse. He clenched his eyes shut.
This helped but also made for increased awareness of something almost as bad as the sight: the hearing. For so few people, the diner was loud. It wasn’t just people talking either but the sounds of them eating: the sounds of teeth scraping forks, of someone sucking on a bone, of mouths slurping beverages, of people swishing their saliva as they savored food that couldn’t have been that good to begin with. It made him shudder and want to puke.
Then there were the smells. The diner was haunted by a myriad of scents, not all of them agreeable. It was food, grease, sweat, smoke, and people, all rolled into a single pungent wave. Kaeden had never noticed how poorly those smells went together. Nevertheless, they weren’t quite enough to drown out another different and much more pleasing scent, though he almost wished they did. The other aroma was all around him, sweeter and more mouthwatering than anything else he’d ever smelled. The air was thick with it, and each time he inhaled, his thoughts became fuzzy as the dryness in his mouth worsened. He clenched his fists helplessly.
What’s happening to me?
“Here’s your drink, sir.” He looked up to see Evie the waitress setting a huge glass of ice water on the table before him. “Are you ready to order, or do you need a few more minutes?” Absently, she pushed her hair away from her face, and Kaeden watched as some stray strands were pulled across her throat. She had an exquisite neck, long and slender. He could almost see the blood pumping through her veins. He even thought he could hear it though it was more likely his own blood pounding in his ears. She was giving off the pleasing smell in waves, muddling Kaeden’s mind and making him want nothing more than to get closer to her, to bury his face in the delicious and fragrant curve of her neck, to inhale her scent, to sink his—
Kaeden’s mind snapped abruptly back to reality, Evie’s words cutting off those bizarre, unwanted urges. He switched his attention to her face and saw that her congenial expression was gone, replaced with one of discomfort. Her manner was now uneasy, and she was unconsciously leaning away from him.
“Sorry,” Kaeden said hurriedly, feeling as disconcerted as she looked. He ordered the first thing he saw on the menu, and she walked away without another word, a little faster than she had previously. Kaeden watched her leave, feeling oddly deprived and hungrier than before.
“Come on, Parish,” he muttered to himself, grabbing his glass of water. “Get ahold of yourself.” He took a large gulp and choked on it, having to use every bit of willpower he had not to spit it out. The water was disgusting. He couldn’t say how it tasted different from all the water he’d had before, but he knew it was awful. Too…well, watery. And too cold. He pushed the glass away, disgusted and annoyed as he instead took to memorizing the ingredients list on a bottle of ketchup until Evie returned with his food.
“Enjoy,” she said, placing a plate of steaming food in front of him. He saw that he’d ordered toast, eggs, sausage and bacon from the breakfast side of the menu. She made a hasty retreat after making sure he didn’t need anything else, apparently still unnerved by the look he’d given her earlier. Kaeden couldn’t help but notice as she left that she smelled better than the food in front of him.
He looked down at the plate, vaguely confused. It looked normal enough, like something straight out of a breakfast restaurant’s commercial. Logically, he knew this should mean the food looked good. His mind, however, didn’t seem to grasp that and assured him instead that the food looked and smelled like something the cat had dragged in and pissed on.
He shoveled down a forkful anyway, desperate to soothe the hunger that now seemed to be gnawing away at his insides. The food caught in his throat, though, and he had to take a drink of the nasty water to get it down. Nevertheless, he continued to wolf it all down. He had to get something in his stomach.
By the time Evie returned to take his plate and offer him dessert, Kaeden was struggling not to throw up.
“Sorry, sir, but you don’t look too good,” she told him. “Would you like me to…”
Kaeden didn’t catch the end of Evie’s question. Her proximity was making the scent of her stronger, and it was hopelessly distracting. He looked into her face. He noticed now that her rosy complexion and large eyes made her look like a child: innocent, helpless, and fragile. He was certain he would have no problems subduing her if he decided he wanted to. And he did—
“Hey! What are you—? You’re hurting me, let go!”
Kaeden jerked back to reality to see that he had the girl’s wrist in his hand and halfway to his face. He let her go like she was toxic and scooted away.
“I am so sorry!” he said. What the hell am I doing? Evie had backed away and was looking at him like he might come at her with a knife any second now. It wasn’t an unfair speculation.
“I—I think you should—”
“Leave?” Kaeden finished hastily. “Yeah, me, too.” He pulled his last two twenties out of his wallet and dropped them on the table. “The change is yours; sorry for the trouble.”
He was out of his chair and then the diner almost before he registered it. What the hell was that? His throat was blazing, his stomach was turning somersaults, and on top of it all, he was still starving, still parched; more so than before. What was happening to him?
I know you must be full of questions, the man had said. Uncertainties; worries that need soothing.
Kaeden scowled. “Shut up.”
He crossed the parking lot, making his way to the car, but as soon as his hand closed around the door handle, he was gripped by the overpowering desire to run, to lose himself in the rhythm of his feet pounding against the ground. He surrendered to it readily and took off in a random direction, no destination in mind.
Frustratingly, the run was marred by the discomfort that wouldn’t stay behind, but he still enjoyed the reassuring sound of his feet meeting the pavement and the smell of outside air. Though tinged with pollution, it was much easier to breathe than the air in the diner; at the very least it didn’t interfere with his mental faculties.
Though he tried to move away from any kind of awareness as he ran, he couldn’t help but notice that it was a dazzlingly bright night despite there being only a few stars and a sliver of moon to light the clouded night sky. The luminous crescent looked to Kaeden like the grin of a Cheshire cat, and the thought crossed his mind that the universe was laughing at him.
He pushed himself to go faster, wishing he could enjoy the run properly; it would no doubt have been exhilarating. He’d never gone this fast before, and he didn’t even feel tired or out of breath from it. It felt like he was flying.
He stopped abruptly as a breeze gained strength, sending an intoxicating smell to meet him. It was like the one Evie had been giving off but stronger this time, less diffused despite being outside. It called to him like a flame to a moth, obliterating all thoughts unrelated to finding the source. Changing directions, he headed for the scent.
The park? That was where he found himself as the smell drew closer. Its effect had steadily declined despite the fact that he knew he was getting close, but Kaeden wasn’t certain if that displeased him or not. Regardless, the smell’s intensity had now dwindled to the point that it was overshadowed by another, very different smell. It was like the thick smell that hung in the air after thunderstorms. Weird, he thought, taking in his surroundings. Though a translucent layer of clouds coated the sky, they didn’t look like the type that held rain, and there was no electricity to the atmosphere. Everything seemed calm. In fact, the silence that had settled over the park, though appreciated by Kaeden, was almost eerie. There weren’t even crickets chirping.
It was unnatural.
He strained his ears, listening for anything at all, and was somewhat surprised when he did hear something. It was a soft but unsettling sound, like tearing, but strangely wet.
Maybe it was that he needed a distraction. Maybe it was that he was being overly curious. Maybe it was that he just couldn’t take any more mysteries in one day. Whatever the reason, Kaeden followed the sound through the otherwise silent park.
There, he thought.
Publisher: BookRix GmbH & Co. KG Sonnenstraße 23 80331 Munich Germany
Text: P.K. Gallagher
Images: BookRix: Sabine Sarfert
Editing/Proofreading: BookRix: Rebecca Bowslaugh
Publication Date: 05-11-2013
All Rights Reserved
For my father Who always believed I'd make this happen